Millie Stoker came from Shoreditch, just a mile down the road from the house on Amhurst Road. She had been born Mildred Cowper into a devout Catholic family, the second child of Horace Cowper, a dour and diligent clerk/bookkeeper at the local auctioneers and valuers, and his Irish wife, Doris, a seamstress. Brought up to observe the virtues of orderliness in all things and carefulness in financial matters, Milly had upheld those values throughout the years of her marriage.
In the last year or two, she had become resigned to her life. In fact, if she were honest with herself, she had become content with her life; she had felt secure. Charles Stoker had been her ideal husband. He had swept her off her feet when they first met eighteen years earlier, with his big frame, his blond hair, and that lady-killing smile. The son of a marine engineer from Liverpool, he had been raised from the age of eight in Islington. He had served a five-year apprenticeship in a printer’s tool room to become a qualified engineer and toolmaker whilst also studying in the evenings at Finsbury Technical Institute to gain a degree from London University. With his acquired knowledge of photography and the printing industry, he had had a promising future in the old Battersby printing works in Clerkenwell, owned by the wealthy Collick family.
She had been an intelligent, smartly dressed, nineteen-year-old, who worked in a nearby bank. He had always maintained that he had first been attracted to her by the sight of her neatly turned ankle, espied through the window of the tool room as she dismounted from the tram one morning. He had boldly asked her to accompany him to the printworks’ annual ball, where he had whirled her round the ballroom floor with grace, charm and sparkling eyes.
They had been married within nine months. At first, a small flat in Hoxton had met their needs but when she became pregnant, in the spring of 1910, she gave up her job at the bank, and Charles found them a larger home in the much smarter Amhurst Road. There, they were able to afford the considerably reduced rent of the bottom two floors of a four-storey house by agreeing to act as managing agents for the two flats above. The property was owned by the Collick family, Charles’s employer.
With their own family addition imminent, they had prepared the small room next to their bedroom with great care, and when the baby was born their heaven was complete. Millie had taken one look at her new baby son and pronounced: “He’s his father born again, he’s a little Charlie.” Her husband could only beam with pride.
Life progressed happily over the next few years. Charles thoroughly enjoyed his work and was promoted to works manager in 1911. Little Charlie was a constant source of wonder and joy to his parents, and Millie began to think of trying for a second child. They were untouched by the rumblings of strife in Europe or by the Irish troubles nearer home.
The only sadness to cloud their blue skies came with the death of Millie’s father. The quiet bookkeeper, Granddad Ockie to the two-year-old, had doted upon his grandson and had visited them regularly. He contracted tuberculosis early in 1913 and died a year later, in February 1914.
Later that year, however, came an event, the consequences of which were to rock the very foundations of their little heaven. On 28th June, the Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, was assassinated—with a single bullet from a Browning pistol. The complicated series of treaties and alliances established between various European nations caused a chain reaction from this tragic deed that led to Great Britain’s declaration of war against Germany on 4th August.
Within a month, Charles had been encouraged by the owner of the print works, the retired Major General Sir Arthur Collick, to accept a commission as a lieutenant in the newly created photographic section of the Royal Flying Corps. He was to become a technical instructor; his expertise in the production and use of printing and photographic equipment was considered to be invaluable.
The initial wave of optimism flowing throughout the country in the late summer of 1914 suggested the war would be a brief affair. It would all be over by Christmas. Nevertheless, Millie feared the prospect. She knew her husband would accept wholeheartedly the call to serve his country, and she put on a brave face in support of his decision.
It was of comfort that her widowed mother now began to spend much of her time with her and little Charlie, the latter already a bouncy, blond, three-year-old bundle of energy. They found things to do and to laugh at that distracted her from thoughts of the ghastly war; and of her husband fiddling with photographic equipment in flying machines. Thank the Lord he was only at Farnborough and not over there. But, anyway, it would all be over soon, wouldn’t it?
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